First Glance: It's not ugly, and that's saying something...
Appearance-wise, there's not much to separate the entry-level Optima LX from the top-of-the-line EX. Both have a chrome grille as standard with a blacked-out grille optional; the EX gets chrome door handles (though I prefer the body-color door handles on the LX) and tinted side windows. EX and LX-V6 models get 16" alloy wheels, but the 16" steel wheels with plastic covers on the 4-cylinder LX looked just fine to me.
The main selling point of the Optima (and most Korean cars) is not styling, but value, and the LX delivers: Power windows, mirrors and locks, CD player, air conditioning, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are all standard. With a set of $85 floor mats, the sticker on my tester was a palatable $17,040. That's $1,996 less than an entry-level Toyota Camry CE (with floor mats). That said, the Camry includes antilock brakes and will hold its value much better. That said, good luck finding a bare-bones Camry CE at a dealer.
In the Driver's Seat: Turning Japanese? I really think so!
The Kia's seat cloth looked a bit thin to me, but the height-adjustable front seats were comfortable enough. Leather is optional, but only on the EX. One thing I didn't like was the black-and-chrome stick-shift, which looked like it belonged in a 1988 Chevy Beretta. Automatic Optimas get a much nicer looking shift lever.
On the Road: I want my ABS
Shifting aside, the Optima is easy to drive and a wonderful car for nipping about town. Its dimensions are passenger-friendly inside and urban-friendly outside. The ride is pleasantly firm, though a bit floaty at highway speeds.
With standard airbags all around, passive safety is an Optima strong point. Active safety, however, isn't: Antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control are optional on the EX and LX-V6, but not available on the 4-cyl LX. Why should buyers of the low-end Optima miss out on these important safety features? That's just not right.
Journey's End: Hot on Toyota and Honda's heels
The Kia Optima's cheap price doesnt tell the whole story, though: Resale values are much lower than Japanese cars, and there's still a cloud hanging over the Kia's reliability record. That said, a 5 year/60,000 mile warranty and free roadside assistance should be some consolation. If you're in it for the long haul, a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain should give you some peace of mind; just be sure to do all the maintenance as recommended in the owner's manual and save your receipts.
Long term is an unknown, but my first impression of the Optima is that it's a winner. The important thing here is that Kia gets it. They seem to understand what Americans want in a car every bit as well as Toyota and Honda do -- and they've given it to us in the new Optima.